Patrizia Grieco: agent for change in Italy

In corporate Italy's monoculture of greying men in well-cut suits, Patrizia Grieco, the first woman to chair Italy's largest utility Enel, disrupts the status quo on sight.

The former technology executive, who was appointed chairman of state-controlled Enel by Italy's reformist prime minister Matteo Renzi, is attired in crisp white shirt and blue jeans, a pair of scarlet-framed spectacles pushed back on her head. Her sartorial choice is a tell for her views on the need for doing things differently in Italy, in corporate and political spheres alike.

"Women must try to be agents of change because they represent discontinuity; if we do not try to work for discontinuity then I believe we will have failed," Ms Grieco, 62, says settling back into the sofa in her office in Enel's high rise headquarters in Milan. Fewer women work in Italy than in any economy in the EU, except Malta.

"It is a problem for Italy that we have a managerial class that is frozen in time. [Women] have a responsibility to get the elevator started again for the next generation [of Italians]."

Such public fighting talk is unusual in corporate Italy where a cosy clubbiness of top executives, bankers and politicians has been the norm since the postwar period. But the promotion of a younger generation of managers and the economic decline of the eurozone's third-largest economy is starting to crack open the system, forcing it to embrace more modern governance as companies seek international investors to make up for the waning investment at home.

This reshuffling of corporate Italy has helped propel Ms Grieco into one of Italy's top corporate roles.

After training as a lawyer, Ms Grieco worked in IT systems for two decades and was chief executive of midsized Italian technology company Italtel and then chairman of Olivetti. Two years ago she joined the board of CNH Industrial, sister company of Fiat Chrysler. Traditionally the inner sanctum of Italy's corporate power network, the two Fiat companies have been at the vanguard of putting more women on their boards since shifting their headquarters to the UK and the US.

Ms Grieco received a call from the media savvy Mr Renzi in April, after the former mayor of Florence became prime minister, which gave him sway over the nomination of key management roles at several of Italy's biggest, state-controlled companies.

He appointed women to chair Eni, the state-controlled energy group, Enel and Poste Italiane, the national postal operator, and trumpeted his feminism. Critics accused him of window dressing by appointing well-connected women to non-executive positions. Ms Grieco responds to the criticism, saying drily: "It was not surprising to receive the call, given what I've achieved."

She adds: "But it was surprising given it was a sign of change with the past. If Renzi did not in his heart desire change, he would not have made the call."

Of the three women appointed by Mr Renzi, Emma Marcegaglia and Luisa Todini, who chair Eni and Poste Italiane respectively, are businesswomen but also the daughters of successful post-second world war industrialists. Ms Grieco was the only self-made business leader.

She nonetheless describes her background as "privileged", not least because she could afford childcare for her daughter and thus was able to juggle her ascent to CEO of Italtel. "I don't know how I did it, but I did it. I just took things day by day," she says.

Describing her move into the technology sector early in her career - well before it was fashionable - Ms Grieco says: "I didn't choose. I was chosen, and then I fell in love with it."

She had studied law like many Italian women of her generation, "but I knew English well and it wasn't so commonplace for Italian lawyers then to speak English well". That meant she was drafted in to work on mergers and acquisitions at Italtel, before moving over to the operations.

"I tried to find out how I could be useful. I wasn't a technician but I could still be useful by learning to show how the technology was useful [to others] and to understand what it could be used for," she says. "It is not necessary that you understand the 'bits' but what is really important is that you understand the needs it meets and you are able to communicate that."

Ms Grieco considers that it was those same skills that have smoothed her path at Enel, where the chairman is involved in a daily juggle between its largest owner, the Italian Treasury, which owns 30 per cent and has a voracious demand for dividends to fill emptying state coffers, and a gamut of international investors. Enel's second-largest investor is Safe, China's central bank. Adding to investor tension, the Italian state plans to sell another 5 per cent of Enel.

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>Enel can be seen as sharing a problem facing Italy - a huge debt pile. Analysts say Enel's €40bn in net debt weighs down its ability to excel. Under Ms Grieco and CEO Francesco Starace, Enel is in the throes of a bold restructuring that includes spinning off almost a fifth of its Spanish business Endesa to pay down some of its debt. But the upheaval is proving tricky to manage and the company's debt has ticked up, which in turn has hit its shares.

Ms Grieco says investors are attracted to Italy because they can pick up assets cheaply, but she also says they would not be investing if they did not believe in the possibility that deep reform is under way - again, probably as true for Enel as for Italy in general.

Of Italy, Ms Grieco says: "Perhaps our expectations after so many years of immobility were too high," referring to the hopes among business and Italians in general for radical change promised by Mr Renzi. "Perhaps we need more patience because change is difficult and it needs to be made by the whole country."

She reels off a list that is familiar to Italy's business owners, who are desperate for reform to stir the economy out of a decade of decline. Italy ranks 56 in the World Bank index of ease of doing business, in large part because of its heavy bureaucracy. Italy must slash red tape, for instance, Ms Grieco says, adding that change is necessary "not only for us but for our children and the generations that come after us".

Ms Grieco's daughter, a lawyer, also lives in Milan and has two small children. "My life is work and grandmother, grandmother and work," Ms Grieco laughs, describing how she is permanently attached to her smartphone both for work and because her daughter sends "at least 10 photos of my grandchildren" a day. "It is a recipe for real life to have family around you. I think it only helps your work, it helps to bring positiveness to work. To work well you need hunger but you also need some happiness," she says.

And her verdict on her own career? "I ask myself once in a while whether if I were a man I would have achieved more," she says, with a wry smile.

"But I am content with what I've done and with what I've achieved; I've also been very fortunate. I've met many open minded people in my life - not so many members of the boys' club."

Innovation and good governance

Alessandra Perrazzelli, country manager at Barclays Italy, knows Patrizia Grieco from when Ms Perrazzelli was president of Valore D, a lobby group aimed at increasing the representation of women on boards in Italy.

Ms Grieco has shown "a unique understanding of the need to bring together innovation at commercial level and good governance in a company", Ms Perrazzelli says. "I hold her in high esteem because she made her way in sectors normally foreign to women of her generation in Italy and because she has advocated meritocracy."


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